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TN Supreme Court Overturns Home Forfeiture, Rules State Must Provide Evidence of Compliance with Legal Requirements

Press release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts; March 9, 2015:

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that, in actions under Tennessee’s civil forfeiture statutes, the State must present evidence that it complied with both the procedural and the substantive requirements in the law.

Under Tennessee’s civil forfeiture statutes, the State may obtain forfeiture of both real property, such as land and homes, and personal property, such as cars, cash or computers, if it is shown that the property is used in the commission of a crime. Forfeiture proceedings are civil in nature and are separate from any related criminal proceedings. Tennessee law permits courts to grant the State forfeiture of private property even if the property owner is not convicted of any crime.

In this case, Charles D. Sprunger brought his desktop home computer to a technician for repairs. The computer technician discovered many images of child pornography on the computer and reported it to law enforcement. Mr. Sprunger eventually was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced to eight years in prison.

The State secured a forfeiture warrant on Mr. Sprunger’s home and filed a lien on the property pending the outcome of the forfeiture proceedings. The home was sold in foreclosure, and the State filed a lawsuit for forfeiture of the excess proceeds from the foreclosure sale of the home. Unable to access the proceeds from the sale of his home, Mr. Sprunger lacked the funds to hire an attorney. In the forfeiture proceedings, he represented himself from prison by writing letters to the trial court and participating in the trial by telephone.

The trial court found that the State had met the procedural requirements in the forfeiture statutes and that Mr. Sprunger had “used” his home in the commission of his crime. Accordingly, the trial court granted the State’s request for forfeiture. Mr. Sprunger appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court granted Mr. Sprunger permission to appeal.

On appeal, the Supreme Court noted that forfeiture is disfavored under Tennessee’s constitution, meaning that Tennessee forfeiture statutes must be strictly interpreted.

In this case, the Court observed that civil forfeiture typically deprives property owners of funds to hire an attorney, so most, like Mr. Sprunger, must represent themselves in the forfeiture proceedings. Taking into account the Tennessee constitution’s disfavor toward forfeiture, the Supreme Court heldthat, in civil forfeiture proceedings, the State must come forward with affirmative proof that it complied with the procedural requirements in Tennessee’s statutes. The Court emphasized that courts must strictly construe allprovisions of the forfeiture statutes, both procedural and substantive.

In Mr. Sprunger’s case, the State failed to present affirmative proof it complied with the procedural requirements outlined in the civil forfeiture statutes. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision and vacated the forfeiture of excess proceeds from the sale of Mr. Sprunger’s home.

Read the opinion in State of Tennessee v. Charles D. Sprunger, authored by Justice Holly Kirby.

Alexander, Cohen Statements on King v. Burwell Oral Arguments

Press release from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; March 4, 2015:

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 4 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate health committee, released the following statement on today’s Supreme Court oral arguments in the King v. Burwell case, which Alexander attended:

“Hopefully the Supreme Court will rule that the law means what it says. If the court does, states will have two options for the 6 million Americans who today receive tax credit subsidies. First, states without exchanges can still create them, but Republicans in Congress will provide a better option. We will act to provide financial assistance those Americans hurt by this as well as offer states more flexibility in offering lower cost insurance policies to their citizens.”

On Monday, Alexander, along with U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah (chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) and John Barrasso of Wyoming (chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee) published an op-ed in the Washington Post about what Congress should do if the Court decides against the president in this case.

Press release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; March 4, 2015:

As the United States Supreme Court hears oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the case regarding the legality of tax subsidies going to consumers of health insurance purchased through the federal health care marketplace, Tennesseans should be made aware of what is actually at stake in this lawsuit.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 187,856 Tennesseans currently receive monthly pro-rated tax subsidies to help them afford insurance coverage purchased through the federally-run marketplace. Nationwide, these subsidies average $268 per person, per month. In the event that the Court rules in favor of the Burwell plaintiffs (a ruling that would directly contradict Congressional intent as it has been clearly and explicitly expressed by the law’s authors) 187,856 Tennessee citizens would immediately lose these subsidies, effectively causing their monthly insurance premiums to skyrocket by hundreds of dollars each month and making health coverage unaffordable for many, if not all.

Estimates from the Urban Institute indicate that, despite years of the number of uninsured Americans falling because of the President Affordable Care Act, the United States uninsured rate would jump by 30%, disproportionately in the South, should the Court rule in favor of the plaintiffs. This is an unacceptable outcome, and it would throw our state’s—and our nation’s—health insurance systems into chaos while measurably and significantly harming the health of our citizens.

Senate Judiciary Cmte Approves Resolution to Allow Voters to Pick TN AG

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; March 4, 2015:

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 4, 2015  — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a resolution on Wednesday that would allow Tennessee voters to decide if they want to popularly elect the state’s attorney general (AG).  Senate Joint Resolution 63, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), would begin the process of amending the State Constitution, which if approved, would go to voters in the 2018 general election.

“Tennessee is the only state in the nation in which the people have neither a direct nor indirect voice in the selection of their attorney general, and we are the only state that gives that power to our Supreme Court,” said Senator Beavers.

Beavers’ resolution calls for the AG to serve a six-year term, but would limit it to two consecutive terms.  The resolution requires approval by the 109th General Assembly currently in session, and the 110th which will take office in 2017, before going to voters in a statewide referendum.

Beavers said that when Tennessee’s Constitution was written, calling for nomination of the AG by the state’s Supreme Court justices, the court was popularly elected.  Forty-three states already select their attorney generals through popular election.  In six other states, the AG is selected by either the popularly elected governor or the popularly elected state legislature.

“Along with the overwhelming majority of Tennesseans and 96 percent of the rest of this nation, I feel that the citizens of this state ought to have a ‘say so’ in the highest legal office in Tennessee,” she concluded.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor where it will be heard on three readings before taking a final vote.  It will then travel to the House of Representatives for approval there.

TN Supreme Court Upholds Child Neglect Conviction For Mother Who Relied on Faith Healing to Cure Daughter of Cancer

Press release from the Administrative Office of the Tennessee Courts; February 13, 2015:

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the conviction of an East Tennessee woman for child neglect based upon her failure to obtain medical treatment for her daughter.

In 2002, Jacqueline Crank’s adolescent daughter developed a tumor on her shoulder and began to experience extreme pain. Crank took her daughter to see a chiropractor and a nurse practitioner, both of whom advised that immediate emergency care was needed. Crank, a member of a small congregation of the Universal Life Church in Lenoir City, claimed that she had prayed for her daughter in accordance with her religious beliefs instead of seeking medical care.

The Department of Children’s Services intervened and authorized medical treatment. Crank’s daughter was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, and she died in September 2002 at the age of 15. The trial court found Crank guilty of child neglect and sentenced her to one year of probation. The trial court ruled that Crank did not qualify for the spiritual treatment exemption, a law that protects parents who provide “treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone in accordance with the tenets or practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.” The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and upheld the decision of the trial court.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Crank claimed that the spiritual treatment law was too vague to give her fair warning that she could be prosecuted for her conduct. She also argued that the law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held that the law was not overly vague. Because Crank would not prevail in the appeal of her conviction even if the exemption were found unconstitutional, the Court concluded that the Establishment Clause issue should not be decided in this case.

Read the State v. Jacqueline Crank opinion, authored by Justice Gary R. Wade.

Cohen, Cooper Join Bipartisan Supreme Court Amicus Brief in Arizona Redistricting Case

Press release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; January 27, 2015:

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, this week joined 19 other Members of Congress in filing a bipartisan amicus brief in the Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court later this year. The amicus brief, which was signed by 10 other Democrats and 9 Republicans, supports the right of citizens to determine how federal elections are conducted in their individual states and defends the federal government’s Constitutional authority to make or alter regulations related to the “time, place, and manner” of Congressional elections.

“Elected officials should focus on effectively and equitably representing their constituents, not merely winning partisan battles,” said Congressman Cohen.“Unfortunately, in seeking to overturn the decisions of a non-partisan, independent commission endorsed overwhelmingly by the voters of their state, Arizona’s Republican leaders have chosen a different path. This meritless lawsuit misrepresents the Founder’s intentions, puts partisanship above people, and merely underscores the urgent need to get politics out of the redistricting process. The people of Arizona voted to eliminate gerrymandering, and the Supreme Court should respect their choice.”

The Arizona case centers on a referendum passed by Arizona voters in 2000 which, in an effort to make the redistricting process non-partisan and to combat gerrymandering, set up an independent, five-member redistricting commission to take redrawing of congressional districts out of the hands the Arizona legislature. In 2012, after the independent commission carried out its duty for the second time following the 2010 Census, the Arizona State Legislature sued, arguing that the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause grants the power of setting election laws explicitly and exclusively to the individual state legislatures, a misinterpretation of the language.

In supporting the constitutionality of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the bipartisan Congressional amicus brief reiterates that:

  • Congress has broad and express Constitutional authority to regulate the time, place, and manner of congressional elections,
  • For more than 170 years, Congress has done so in a way that supports the people of Arizona to form a redistricting commission,
  • Congress has in fact weighed in and has said in federal statute that states’ redistricting can be done by more than the State Legislature proper,
  • The use of an independent commission for districting is consistent with, and supports, core principles of federalism reflected in the Constitution and the Elections Clause itself, which seek to ensure a direct link between national representatives and the People,
  • The use of an independent commission is an important, democracy-promoting development that will help reduce negative effects of severe partisan gerrymandering.

Congressman Cohen also reintroduced his Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act, which would bring an Arizona-style independent redistricting commission to every state, earlier this month. His legislation would take the decennial congressional apportionment process, which often leads to partisan gerrymandering, out of the hands of politicians and give it to an independent redistricting commission.

“It’s time to take politics out of the redistricting process,” said Congressman Cohen when introducing the John Tanner FAIR Act. “Congress is so polarized today that we’re unable to find common ground on the major issues facing our country.  Instead of solving our nation’s problems, Congress is just kicking the can down the road and waiting until the next election for answers.  I believe that if we eliminate the gerrymandering of districts we will help get more accomplished for our country.”

The John Tanner FAIR Act was championed for many years by former Congressman John Tanner and was introduced in the 112th Congress by former Congressman Heath Shuler. Beginning after the 2020 census, it would require each state to appoint an independent and transparent congressional redistricting commission. The commission would be charged with creating a redistricting plan that emphasizes geographical contiguity and compactness of districts rather than political affiliations or the impact a district’s lines may have on incumbent representatives.

The Congresspeople signing on to the Arizona amicus brief include: Julia Brownley (D-Cal.),Ken Calvert (R-Cal.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.),Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), Duncan D. Hunter (R-Cal.), Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Cal.), Tom McClintock (R-Cal.), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), David E. Price (D-N.C.), Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Cal.).

TN Supreme Court: Offenses Requiring Mandatory Minimum Sentences Don’t Prevent Judicial Diversion Eligibility

Press release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts; January 23, 2015:

The Supreme Court ruled today that a criminal offense that provides for a mandatory minimum period of confinement does not necessarily prevent a defendant charged with that crime from being eligible for judicial diversion.

The defendant, Shanice L. Dycus, pled guilty in 2012 to multiple drug offenses after being arrested four times in nine months. One of those arrests was for possession of marijuana with intent to sell or deliver within 1,000 feet of a school zone in Clarksville – a violation of the Drug-Free School Zone Act,which requires mandatory jail time upon the court’s entering of a guilty judgment.

Dycus requested the trial court place her on judicial diversion. Judicial diversion is an option for some defendants to serve a period of time on probation, with certain conditions, to allow them to prove that they are capable of being rehabilitated. If the defendant successfully completes the diversion period, the proceedings against the defendant are dismissed. Certain criteria, such as the circumstances of the offense and criminal record must be considered on the record to determine whether judicial diversion is appropriate.

In this case, the trial court determined that, while the offense itself did not preclude Ms. Dycus from judicial diversion, her “complete disrespect for the law” and other factors did not make her a suitable candidate for diversion. Her request was denied, and she was sentenced to two years in jail.

The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the trial court that the defendant was eligible for diversion, but reversed the trial court’s denial of diversion because the trial court failed to consider and weigh all the relevant factors. The Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to the trial court for reconsideration. The State appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted review.

In its ruling today, the Supreme Court determined that, when the language of both the judicial diversion statute and the Drug-Free School Zone Act are read together, the proper interpretation is that, because judicial diversion occurs before a defendant is sentenced, the mandatory minimum confinement period required by the Drug-Free School Zone Act would not apply to a defendant who was properly eligible for judicial diversion.

The Court also noted that the General Assembly has specifically exempted some crimes from the judicial diversion law, and a violation of the Drug-Free School Zone Act is not among those exclusions.

Finally, the Court concluded, based on its own review of the record, that “the ends of justice would not be served by granting the defendant’s request for judicial diversion.” Therefore, the Court reinstated the trial court’s denial of diversion.

Read the unanimous opinion in State of Tennessee v. Shanice L. Dycus, authored by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins.

TN Supreme Court Rules DCS Not Required to Prove Attempt to Reunite Families Prior to Parental Rights Termination

Press release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts; January 22, 2015:

The Tennessee Supreme Court held today that the Tennessee statute governing termination of parental rights does not require the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to prove as an essential element of its case that it made reasonable efforts to reunite the child with the parent (or parents) before the parent’s rights can be terminated.

According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the termination statute includes the extent of DCS’s efforts to reunify a parent and child only as one of the factors to be weighed in determining whether termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest of the child. The statute does not require DCS to prove it made reasonable efforts to reunify in order to obtain termination. The Court overruled previous cases holding that DCS is required to prove reasonable efforts to reunify as a precondition to terminating the parent’s rights.

The case involves the termination of the parental rights of the father of a Bradley County girl. The father never had custody of the child and, in fact, spent the majority of his daughter’s young life in prison. He did not visit her regularly, and he provided no financial support.

Based on the father’s conduct, the juvenile court terminated the father’s parental rights based on the ground of abandonment by wanton disregard for the welfare of the daughter. The juvenile court held that, because DCS proved that ground for termination, DCS was not required to establish that it made reasonable efforts to assist the father. The father appealed. The Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, reversed the juvenile court, holding that DCS was required to show that it made reasonable efforts to assist the father before it could obtain termination of the father’s parental rights.

The State appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Tennessee termination statute does not require DCS to prove that it made reasonable efforts to reunite families before proceeding with termination actions.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court compared Tennessee laws governing dependency and neglect proceedings with those governing the termination of parental rights. The opinion notes that Tennessee statutes on dependency and neglect proceedings require DCS to make reasonable efforts to reunify the family whenever it removes a child from the parent’s home. This does not mean, however, that DCS must prove that it made such efforts as an element of the termination case, because the termination statute does not require such a showing. Rather, the plain language of the termination statute provides only that the extent of DCS’s efforts to reunify the family is one of many factors considered in assessing the best interest of the child.

Therefore, in this case, the Supreme Court held that the Tennessee statute on termination of parental rights does not require DCS to prove it made reasonable efforts to reunite the parent and child. It reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the juvenile court decision terminating the parental rights of the father. The Court stressed in its opinion that, in ruling that DCS is not required to prove reasonable efforts at reunification, it does “not seek to minimize the importance of DCS’s efforts to assist parents who lose custody of their child and seek to regain it.”

Read the unanimous opinion in In re: Kaliyah S. et al., authored by Justice Holly Kirby.

TN Supreme Court: Successor Judge May Act as 13th Juror in Review of Verdict

Press release from the Administrative Office of the Tennessee Courts; January 13, 2015:

The Tennessee Supreme Court today ruled that a successor judge who takes over a case from the judge that presided over the trial, may act as the “13th juror” in a case.  In its ruling, the Court created a rebuttable presumption, which means that it is assumed the judge can act as a 13th juror unless evidence is presented that contradicts that assumption.

In a criminal jury trial in the State of Tennessee, 12 jurors are tasked with determining a verdict. Under Tennessee law, a trial judge has a duty to act as the 13th juror, not to deliberate with the jury on the case, but to provide an independent layer of review in assessing the weight of the evidence. Examining the weight of the evidence requires consideration of a number of factors, including resolving conflicting evidence presented at trial. If the trial judge determines that the weight of the evidence is against the verdict, the trial judge must grant a new trial.

The question presented to the Court in this case is whether a successor judge may act as the 13th juror in cases in which the original trial judge is not available to act in that capacity. The Court held that a successor judge, after carefully considering the record, may act as the 13th juror in all cases except in the rare occasion in which the demeanor of a witness was the critical issue in weighing the evidence that led to the verdict.

In the trial at issue in this case, the judge presiding during the testimony and presentation of evidence left the bench between the time of the jury’s guilty verdict and the time of sentencing. The jury convicted the defendant of aggravated burglary, employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, aggravated robbery, and aggravated assault.The defendant, Justin Ellis, was sentenced to 19 years in prison for these offenses. The defense then filed a motion for a new trial and raised the issue of whether a successor judge could properly act as a 13th juror without having been present for the testimony. After reviewing the record, the successor judge determined that he could act as a 13th juror in this case. The defendant appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals determined that, under the facts of this case, the successor judge could not fill the role of 13th juror and ordered a new trial.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which today created a rebuttable presumption that a successor judge may act as the 13th juror and held that the presumption could only be rebutted when the demeanor of a witness is the critical issue involved in resolving this issue. In this case, the Court determined that the demeanor of the witnesses was not the critical issue and that, as a result, the successor judge acted properly in serving as the 13th juror in this case in determining that the weight of the evidence supported the jury’s guilty verdict.

Read the unanimous opinion in State of Tennessee v. Justin Ellis, authored by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins.

AFP-TN Praise TN Supreme Court’s Selection of Slatery as Next AG

Press release from Americans for Prosperity – TN; September 15, 2014:

NASHVILLE – Americans for Prosperity – Tennessee (AFP-TN) commends the TN Supreme Court for listening to Tennesseans on their selection of a new attorney general. Herbert Slatery III was selected to serve the eight-year term as Tennessee’s attorney general.

Three of the Supreme Court Justices recently won their retention election campaigns. Unlike most past retention elections they actually had to campaign for their seats. Due to the efforts of Americans for Prosperity and Lt Governor Ron Ramsey, the Justices were besieged partially based upon decisions made by our previous attorney general. A record number of Tennesseans showed up to the polls to hold them accountable.

Twenty-eight other states joined the lawsuit to stop ObamaCare. Tennessee sat idly on the sidelines instead of leading the fight; the attorney general made the decision. Tennessee previously expanded the Medicaid system. Skyrocketing costs that would have ultimately bankrupted the state led to harsh TennCare cuts.

“We sought to shine a light on the entire process. With record turn-out and our Supreme Court selecting a new Attorney General we certainly exceeded our goal,” said Andrew Ogles, AFP-TN State Director. “Our justices are to be commended for putting partisan politics aside and selecting someone who will best represent the interests of Tennesseans. We held their feet to the fire and they heard us.”

TN Supremes Pick Haslam’s Chief Counsel as Next AG

Press release from Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts; September 15, 2014:

Herbert H. Slatery, III will be the next Attorney General and Reporter of Tennessee, the Supreme Court announced this morning in Nashville.

Slatery, of Nashville, has served as Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief counsel since 2011. Prior to that, he was an attorney at a Knoxville law firm for 30 years.

“He is an excellent lawyer with proven leadership ability and sound judgment,” said Chief Justice Sharon G. Lee, who stood with the other justices to make the announcement about their unanimous choice in the courtroom at the Supreme Court building in downtown Nashville.

“It’s an incredible honor,” said Slatery in remarks after the announcement was made. “I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity.” He thanked his wife, Gov. Bill Haslam, and Attorney General Robert Cooper, Jr.

“He has played an important role in drafting major legislation during the current term and has worked closely with all branches of government. The people of the state of Tennessee can be proud to have someone of his caliber and experience representing them,” she said of Slatery.

Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice Lee thanked all of the applicants for their efforts and their commitment to public service.

“It was a challenging process because of the quality of the applicants. In the end we selected the person who we thought would be the very best lawyer to serve all Tennesseans,” she said.

The Court also praised the work of the outgoing attorney general.

“The Court extends a special thank you to Attorney General Robert Cooper, Jr. for his eight years of dedicated service to the people of Tennessee, as he has led that office with the highest level of skill and intellect,” Chief Justice Lee said.

Chief Justice Lee spoke to this year’s open process for selecting the state’s attorney general, describing how the Court accepted applications from any licensed attorney in the state. The completed and detailed applications were then made available to the public on the Court’s website. The Court also held a public hearing where the applicants and their speakers made their case for appointment and members of the public expressed their opinions about the applicants. Finally, the members of the Court asked questions of the eight applicants during public interviews.

Slatery is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Tennessee College of Law. He has served as counsel to Governor Bill Haslam since 2011. Before serving in the Governor’s office, he practiced law for 30 years with Egerton, McAfee, Armistead and Davis in Knoxville. Slatery and his wife, Cary, have two children who both live in Knoxville.